Life as it ain't

"I'm not really from outer space. I'm just mentally divergent."

A Philosophy of Mutability (or) what was supposed to be a love poem

Posted by Ronak M Soni on October 31, 2009

Illustration is probably science and religion with the wall being philosophies.

I'm not completely sure why I think this fits here. Not a collage, I swear.

The world is full to the brim with religions and philosophies. Religions are based on faith. Philosophies are, going on what I have observed, based on perspective. Religions are based on belief in a (technically) immutable God. Philosophies are based on belief in a mutable enough perspective. Philosophies, it can be argued, are better for that very reason: mutability is certainly better than non-mutability (please accept this for now; I’ll come to the justification later). Going down that road, it would seem that the more mutable a philosophy is, the more points it would have by default. Actually, the closer mutability is to the heart of a philosophy, the more points it would have by default. Now, imagine a philosophy based entirely, and exclusively, on (its own) mutability. It would be the best possible thing, except for the fact that we need something concrete to work from. So, we’d need a philosophy that, in spite of being based on mutability, provided us with a concrete basis. Now, suppose the principle behind mutability, for we would need something to guide the mutation, itself provided the means for choosing that concrete basis.

In real life, we have natural selection, a mechanism based on a similar process of guided mutation. Is it a co-incidence that long before we had discovered natural selection, we had discovered its intellectual equivalent? (Not really answerable; just a cool parallel.) In fact, is it a co-incidence that natural selection itself was discovered using, and has maintained respectability due to, this very philosophy?

Yes, dear reader, I am talking about the scientific method. It is a method which starts at the basis that everything is a hypothesis, and we have to search for the truth. It is the first system of thought in history that has started from a method for looking for the truth rather than a statement, or at least tentative idea, of the truth; it has replaced knowledge by the search for knowledge, much like the progress of narrative art from the Greek morality plays to the “art for art’s sake” post-modernists. Most people will tell you that science does make the assumption that our senses are right. Let me tell you: science makes many, many more assumptions. It’s just that they are not central to it.

The idea here is what is known as ‘Ockham’s razor’ or ‘Occam’s razor’. Suppose you arranged every hypothesis in the world such that the more assumptions it made, the farther right it would be. Let’s call this the ‘idea line’. Now you start from the left, and say put a razor in as far left as possible. If whatever came out on the left turned out to be useful or not wrong, we would use it. If it didn’t, we would move one space right. This razor that we are shoving is what is known as Ockham’s razor. If you think about it, it’s a logical step away from the premise I have not quite stated, given the need for something concrete to perform our search with.

So, here’s the beauty of the idea line: none of the hypotheses on it are making any pretensions at truth. They are merely making attempts to get at the truth: science’s basic claim is not truth, but the best way to get there.

How come? What if something to the far right of Ockham’s razor is true? Science’s best answer is a question: how can we ever know if it is true? To which, it gets the question how do we have a better idea of the left hypothesis’ trueness than the right one’s?

Science, of course, must answer this question. Its answer speaks in terms of probability, or – as many would have it – a different version of probability called truthlikeness. I won’t go into the difference, as I am not outlining the various standpoints in science. What it says is, in essence, this: for a hypothesis further left, a statement stating it is true has a greater likelihood, according to our knowledge, of being true (for any estimation of probability is an approximation based on knowledge). That’s it. From what we know, we can’t justify either God or relativity. It’s just that we can come closer to justifying relativity. This is also why mutability is good: if it can be seen that the doctrine is wrong, it should be open to change. The basis for mutability is the ability to disprove anything that is said, and that – that any concrete claim that is made must be refutable – is the best statement, that I know of, of the premise of the scientific method.

Now – and here’s the crunch –, how do we translate this to action? If we don’t know what’s true, how do we manipulate the world based on what little knowledge we have? There is one response to this: the experimental sciences, a branch of science that only experiments. There is also another, not mutually exclusive with the first, response: approximations. Where these work, they work, like in technology, due to which I am now writing this and you reading it.

And, where they don’t, they don’t. Like in medicine. Much of modern medicine can be considered to be quackery, full of doctors making approximations based on statistics. Many of these statistics are in question, as are many of the approximations: many of Somalia’s children may be getting a vaccine proven to work on eighty percent of Americans, and dying because of the mild version of the disease they are getting.

There is also one case where the scientific method is well nigh useless: outliers, a specific kind of them. Remember that story you heard about the blind woman who could narrate a scene which is supposedly recorded by a trustworthy doctor? How do we know whether that is a figment of someone’s or many people’s imagination, or true but unbelievably infrequent? Most of this stuff is what is known as ‘anecdotal’. This means that it has reached from source to other places without meticulous and rigorous examination at the source, so we really have no idea. Now, suppose many, many independent witnesses, at least a few among whom are experts who have thoroughly cross-examined the situation, corroborate an observation, and it is stunningly improbable, like the Statue of Liberty waving at us and going back to its original position, how do we study it? The answer is that we simply can’t. All studying has to be of the evidence for the event actually having happened, in which case no theory can be verified/disproved, for the simple reason that none of its predictions can. And I can make this point without even referring to the human tendency of hyperbole.

There is another thing, not quite a problem with it but an issue surrounding it, about science: fair discussion. It’s very hard to achieve this. It’s a natural human tendency to employ a more effective means of convincing: show me a man who has never used bad logic to his advantage and I’ll show you an alien (see what I mean? If no, look at what that sentence means). Very often, even when your reasons are good enough, they sound weak, which leads you to hyperbole. There are many lines of argument one can, in a large discussion group, demolish in one sentence, but speak it, and the line of argument is going to go on; that measly sentence just doesn’t take up enough space in your audience’s minds, minds where point after point, argument after argument, thread after thread, are fighting to take up space. In such an environment, what chance does one(1) measly, even if incredibly deep – especially if incredibly deep –, sentence have?

This is just what happens in the case of helplessness. There is another, more natural, tendency to bad logic: that of conviction. I’ve already talked about the difficulty of translating this method to action. For this very reason, many have learnt that it’s better to stick to your guns than listen to someone who’s telling you you’re going to die if you do, possibly. It’s as simple as that. The second guy doesn’t make the good leader, the first guy does.

Also, if you notice, the doctrine that would better fit the first guy is religion, which is why all through history it hasn’t been a conquest of people without science by people out to teach them science but a conquest of people without the invader’s religion by people out to teach it to them. It is the great failure of these conquests that a majority of those invaded in the modern times have learnt science rather than Christianity.

This is also the ultimate demonstration of the power of science. Yes, it has its problems, but it is also the best thing we have, and this is the only way I can possibly end this, something that was supposed to be a love poem to the greatest doctrine of truth – nay, the search for truth – in all of human history.

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15 Responses to “A Philosophy of Mutability (or) what was supposed to be a love poem”

  1. Ah, but as you pointed out, science can only “prove” or suggest to prove concrete realities: things that can be tested and proven in a laboratory. Science has half of the answers; the arts hold the other half. Put them together, and you have all of human knowledge up to this point. And it’s not that science and art are mutually exclusive: if that were the case, neither one could exist (think literature without words or science without beauty). Instead, they compliment each other, much like men and women complement each other. By the way, science is based on categorizing things into groups, something that the Sophists didn’t believe in–though without it, you also get rid of truth, since you cannot have truth without its opposite.

    • Thanks for dropping by again. Really nice comment. Nothing to say about the art part.

      About the last sentence:
      Science is described in many different ways; I (and, I think, a good part of the scientific community) just find the one I used here most intellectually satisfying. Most of these definitions amount too much the same thing, but I’m not sure about this specific one: how does the scientific method arise from it? Of course, an in-depth discussion about this thing will require some knowledge about the nature of truth in terms of philosophy (which I distinguish from a philosophy in being a body much like science rather than a system of interpretation much like a scientific theory), knowledge which I don’t have. Anyway, it would be nice if you just kinda gave me the outline.

  2. I’ll try. Basically, that last sentence comes from the book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” which I have almost finished. Here’s a link to an article about sophists: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sophism. According to the book and this article, sophists were primarily concerned with teaching “virtue” or “excellence” (the second word being closer to the meaning of the Greek word “arete,” which has a little steeple mark on its last “e”). Also, they believed in relativism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relativism). In other words, every idea was dependent on surrounding ideas. Unlike as in science, there are no absolutes. In science, I can see water in a measuring device and say, with complete accuracy, how much water is in the device. That value never changes, even if I transfer water to many different containers. Sophists, on the other hand, would argue that measuring devices are based on abstract concepts (how do we figure out how long a centimeter is? what exactly is a centimeter?), and that, in another society, another abstract set of principals would create a different measurement.

    All very complex stuff, so I hope that other people can jump in and comment on this phenomenon, too, as I studied some philosophy in college, but not enough to have more than a bare bones idea of the ideas it encompasses.

    As for science, its genesis is contained in Aristotle’s idea about horses (which I also came across in the same book). Plato first argued that horses are composed of unchanging ideas and changing appearances. For example, horses look different when running than they do at rest, but you still know they are horses because of the idea of a horse. Aristotle goes further. He states that the appearance of horses is also tied to an unchanging idea, which he called “substance.” And once objects are created out of unchanging substances, now science has something to observe and study, for it knows that this substance, this thing related to the appearance of a horse, is unchanging, and will be the same in all horses.

    As for how believing in relativism would destroy truth, truth is also based on an unchanging concept. Once you say truth is relative, it can no longer exist as truth. It can only exist as an abstract idea that changes from culture to culture, age to age. That does not mean that our idea of truth doesn’t change, but truth itself cannot change.

    I hope that helps!

  3. Yeah, it does. Thanks. I finally figured out how to reconcile two viewpoints, neither of which I thought wrong.

    While what you say is true about science as it is now, I would still place the Sophists (I’d looked them up when I read your comment, but thanks for taking the trouble) within the scientific tradition, because the scientific tradition – which I would say is anything that follows the idea (not necessarily a conscious one, as many would have it) behind science of the mutability of knowledge – is about mutability, as I’ve already said in my post. Everything you say about ‘science’ only applies to science as it is now (and everything I say about ‘science’ only applies to the idea behind science), and I now realise that I myself should have made the distinction clearer. When I said there were many descriptions of science, I was talking about descriptions of this idea behind science.
    See, if we start from the basis of mutability of knowledge, we won’t get anywhere much, as you may realise. So, we have to start taking up a more and more contrived system; let’s call it a ‘system of scientific working’. That’s where the Sophists, and many others, come in, as less popular systems of scientific working. Some of these have been fairly dismissed, and some probably not so fairly. So, you, and Pirsig, are describing the basis (and a very deep one; I’d never thought of it that way) for the present day system of scientific working. A scientific revolution is, basically, the result of someone bending this system to breaking point, and therefore expanding it.

    A final word on the idea behind science: it isn’t very likely that Aristotle or someone suddenly declared that we have to work on a system based on mutability. It probably just evolved, somehow. Obvious, I know, but needs to be said, so that it is clear in everyone’s head. (Interesting sidenote: what I’m talking about here might not be the most fully-evolved idea of science, but just a rudimentary bumbling about the territory.)

  4. S M Rana said

    Talking of science have you heard of Godel’s Theorem? Mathematics is a branch of science ( if you allow ) where the results are not provisional.

  5. Just read about Godel’s theorem. Wow.
    Fact is, I don’t know about math, and it never even occurred to me while writing this, or reading any philosophy of science. I suppose you could call it a search for truth in its own way, because it is an exploration of a potentially infinite space of the mind, but I’m not sure about the ‘potentially infinite’ part. Of course, due to Godel’s theorem, math shares the idea with the rest of science that the truth can’t be found. It will take some thinking, and asking around, before I can say anything about this with any degree of certainty. Thanks for pointing out this avenue.

  6. S M Rana said

    As a student of physics as you are…nature’s conspiracy to prevent detection of relative motion…” Einstein concluded that a conspiracy of nature must be a law of nature”…on such “gosammer” considerations he based his beautiful conclusions about the non-absoluteness (relativity) of nature..what lies beyond life? You must have heard of Elizabeth Kubler=Ross?

  7. S M Rana said

    I believe that what you term as “potentially infinite” is a fact. Call it a conviction.

  8. Well, it is a fact that scientific revolutions tend to be the ‘chosen ones’ from among a set of hack ideas. The real genius of Einstein was that he was able to transcend his metaphor and do some great real science.
    Take for example chaos theory. Reading James Gleick’s (not particularly good) book, I understood that most of the early proponents were working as much on intuition as on real science. Gleick’s major fault in the book is not realising that if that intuition had turned out to be wrong, they would be a set of hacks.
    (The book that set me up to notice this was Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan.)

    I’ve been thinking about your comment for a while, and I still don’t see how you brought Kubler-Ross (who I now have wikied) into the picture.

  9. S M Rana said

    I’m not talking science, but intuition.

    Godel says there are “unprovable” truths.

    Einstein that some things are undetectable–“uniform motion”.

    Kubler Ross talks about near death experiences–which she says does not prove life after death, only lend it plausibility.

    This like Godels unprovable “truth” and relative motion, could be scientifically unknowable.

    Thus I saw a kind of similarit between Godel, Einstein and Kubler Ross.

  10. There is grandeur in that view of life.

  11. Al said

    Hiya … I stumbled on your oage by mistake. I was looking in Google for Registry software that I had already purchased when I found your site, I must say your website is really cool I just love the theme, its amazing!. I don’t have the time at the moment to totally read your entire site but I bookmarked it and also signed up for your RSS feeds. I will be back around in a day or two. thanks for a great site.

  12. Thanks, Al. Glad you liked the site.

  13. Ananth said

    Isn’t this CMI?

  14. You mean the pic? Yes. I really love it, the way the right side looks like it’s been collaged in.

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